What more can one say about a movie that defines the word "classic"?
The American Film Institute voted "Casablanca" the second-best American film ever made. "Entertainment Weekly" gave it their number-three spot among "100 Greatest Movies." User ratings at the Internet Movie Database rank it number five in their "Top 250 Movies of All-Time." And a scientifically formulated and rigorously administered survey of both the Wife-O-Meter and myself place the film squarely at number one. Certainly, "Casablanca" has been a worthy subject for several previous DVD releases, and now it takes its place among Warner Brothers' celebrated, two-disc, Special Edition sets.
Not bad for a movie that almost never was. After all, in 1942 when it was being made, it was considered just another Warner Brothers back-lot melodrama. The studio had been churning these things out by the cartload every year, using their usual stable of contract players. With a script that was being rewritten daily and a plot that mystified everyone on the set, it's a wonder the film was ever finished, let alone become one of the most famous ever made.
When did I first come to it? Well, it wasn't in 1942, I can tell you that. But it wasn't all that long afterwards. I remember it was a rainy Saturday afternoon in the mid fifties; I was a kid, bored, and looking for something to watch on one of our three television channels. I turned on "Casablanca" about ten minutes into the picture. I'd never seen it before--an old, fuzzy, black-and-white movie interrupted by a multitude of commercials. But I stuck with it for over two hours, fascinated by something that would normally have left me cold--a romance! I had no idea how popular the film was, winning Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, nor how much more popular it would become on TV, eventually attaining the status of most-often broadcast film in history. I only knew I loved it.
So, what's the attraction? Why does "Casablanca" consistently show up in the public's and critics' lists of top-ten films of all time? I suspect it's the characters and atmosphere more than anything else. Sure, it's a riveting love story, too, but without the colorful cast and exotic locale, it would be just another potboiler, which, as I said, is about what its producers initially expected of it. But the picture took on a life of its own as filming and rewrites continued, eventually emerging as the classic every movie buff knows by heart.
Based on the unproduced play "Everybody Comes to Rick's" by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, the film moves effortlessly from scene to scene under the guidance of veteran director Michael Curtiz. The main character is, of course, Richard Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart. He's a hard-bitten, world-weary cynic, thirty-seven, single, the owner of Rick's Cafe Americain, a night club/casino in Casablanca, Morocco, just before America's entry into World War II. He is the quintessential antihero, a man who proclaims, "I stick my neck out for nobody." At least that's his philosophy until old flame Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) shows up. Then all bets are off as Rick turns back into a noble and caring human being.
On a trivia note, Jack Warner had originally considered George Raft to play the lead, but producer Hal Wallis insisted upon Bogart. Raft would later say he turned down the part because he didn't want to perform opposite an actress then unknown in America. That's OK. The year before he had turned down the role of Sam Spade in "The Maltese Falcon," saying the movie wasn't important enough and he didn't trust a first-time director (John Huston). Isn't it reassuring to know you're not the only one who makes mistakes? Serendipitous for us, though.
Add to the mix Rick's ever-faithful piano player, Sam (Dooley Wilson, who had to fake his piano playing); Ilsa's war-hero, resistance-fighter husband, the ultra-suave, ultra-gullible Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid); a weaselly thief named Ugarte (Peter Lorre); a conniving black-marketeer, "leader of all illegal activities in Casablanca," Senor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet); a lovable headwaiter, Carl (S.Z. Sakall); a magnificently evil villain, Major Heinrich Strasser of the German Third Reich (Conrad Veidt); and a Prefect of Police more sympathetic to himself than to the Germans who occupy his city, Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains). What you get is an ensemble cast that is unquestionably the best ever assembled. More serendipity: the studio had entertained thoughts of using, among others, either Ronald Reagan or Joseph Cotten for the part of Laszlo; Hedy Lamarr or Ann Sheridan for Ilsa; Clarence Muse or Lena Horne for Sam; and Otto Preminger for Major Strasser.
But let's not forget director Michael Curtiz, a staple of the Warner Brothers' production machine; temperamental though he was, he created some the studio's most noted films. To name just a few besides "Casablanca," there were "Captain Blood" (1935), "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1936), "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938), "Angels With Dirty Faces" (1938), "The Sea Hawk" (1940), "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (1942), "Mildred Pierce" (1945), "Life With Father" (1947), "Jim Thorpe: All American" (1951), "White Christmas" (1954), "The Egyptian" (1954), "We're No Angels" (1955), and "The Comancheros" (1961). Today, with directors elevated to the level of outright stars, Curtiz may be the most overlooked filmmaker in the history of Hollywood. And he made "Casablanca" almost entirely on a Warner Brothers soundstage!
Then there's the script. Admit it: Can you think of any other film with so many memorable lines? No wonder Woody Allen's character in "Play It Again, Sam" had every word memorized and could recite the dialogue along with the actors. Play a game: Randomly fast forward to any spot in the movie and listen to the conversation. I'm betting you'll find a famous line. Try these examples:
Ugarte: "You despise me, don't you?"
Rick: "If I gave you any thought I probably would."
Ugarte: "Rick, think of all the poor devils who can't meet Renault's price. I get it for them for half. Is that so...parasitic?"
Rick: "I don't mind a parasite. I object to a cut-rate one."
Ugarte: "You know, Rick, I have many a friend in Casablanca, but somehow, just because you despise me, you are the only one I trust."
Yvonne: "Where were you last night?"
Rick: "That's so long ago, I don't remember."
Yvonne: "Will I see you tonight?"
Rick: "I never make plans that far ahead."
Ilsa: "Play it once, Sam. For old times' sake."
Sam: "I don't know what you mean, Miss Ilsa."
Ilsa: "Play it, Sam. Play 'As Time Goes By.'"
Rick: "Here's looking at you, kid."
Captain Renault: "What in heaven's name brought you to Casablanca?"
Rick: "My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters."
Renault: "The waters? What waters? We're in the desert."
Rick: "I was misinformed."
(Never mind that Casablanca is a major seaport; Hollywood was never big on geography.)
Rick: "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.... You know what I want to hear."
Sam: "No, I don't."
Rick: "You played it for her, you can play it for me!"
Sam: "Well, I don't think I can remember...."
Rick: "If she can stand it, I can! Play it!"
Rick: "Not so fast, Louie. ...And remember, this gun is pointed right at your heart."
Renault: "That is my least vulnerable spot."
Rick: "I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that. Now, now... Here's looking at you, kid."
Renault: "Major Strasser has been shot. Round up the usual suspects."
Rick: "Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
I could go on, easily, but you get the idea. Remarkable, considering that writers Julius and Philip Epstein, Howard Koch, and Casey Robinson were handing the cast new material on a daily basis.
Finally, there's the song "As Time Goes On," so indelibly associated with the picture. Originally written a decade earlier in 1931, it was almost excised from the film because of music director Max Steiner's objections to it. Fortunately, circumstances prevented its exclusion and the world was saved.
"Casablanca" holds up as well today as it did sixty-odd years ago, its antihero eventually everyone's ultimate hero, its dialogue some of the best ever written, its cast superb, its atmosphere and ambiance extraordinary, its romance mesmerizing. The combination is irresistible, and the film is perfect.
In what Warner Brothers announce as an "All-new digital transfer," the picture is reproduced as closely as possible to its original size, cropping it from 1.37:1 to 1.33:1 to fit a standard TV screen. In this second or third DVD incarnation, though, the image is marginally better than on the previous MGM disc I reviewed, the bit rate consistently higher for slightly stronger black-and-white contrasts, sharper definition, and even less grain or shimmering effects. Moreover, I found no noticeable traces of print wear, no lines or specks or fades whatever. This new transfer is, in fact, as nearly faultless as it probably can be until the introduction of high definition, and even then I can't see how it might be dramatically improved upon.
The monaural sound again comes up well, and if anything WB's single, center-channel Dolby Digital playback provides even greater focus and clarity than MGM's older two-channel mono. One cannot fault WB for doing their best to give us a movie presentation that's as close as possible to looking and sounding like the one that premiered in November of 1942. The mono voice tracks are especially clean and clear, but they are perhaps a little brighter than on the older MGM disc. Not having access to identical DVD players hooked up to the same receiver for instant comparisons of the MGM and WB discs, it's hard to make absolute judgments. Dynamics seem marginally improved on the newer disc, too, but that may also be an illusion brought on by the difference of several decibels in the playback of the two discs. In any case, WB's mono sound is quite good and mercifully free of extraneous background noise unless the gain is turned up excessively high.
Warner Brothers' Special Editions continue their tradition of excellence with this scrupulously appointed two-disc set. The studio has crammed the discs with about as much material as I would imagine exists on the subject. Disc one contains a two-minute introduction by Lauren Bacall, plus two separate audio commentaries, the first with film critic Roger Ebert and the second with film historian Rudy Behlmer. If you want to know practically everything there is to know about the film, listen to both commentaries. Then, there are cast and crew listings, awards listings, theatrical and re-release trailers, and thirty-two scene selections. English and French are provided for spoken languages, with
English, French, and Spanish for subtitles.
Disc two, of course, contains the bulk of the supplements. The first and most important is a terrific, eighty-three minute documentary on the life and films of Humphrey Bogart, "Bacall on Bogart," narrated by Lauren Bacall. It was produced in 1988 and is conveniently divided into chapters for easy reference to Bogart's history. A second documentary, made in 1998, "You Must Remember This: A Tribute to Casablanca," is about thirty-five minutes long and contains loads of information on the movie's production as remembered by many of the writers and filmmakers who were actually there. After that is a six-minute featurette, "As Time Goes By: The Children Remember," containing reminiscences by the stars' children. Then, there are deleted scenes, about two minutes worth, without sound, and outtakes, about five minutes worth, again without sound but containing some cute goofs. One of my favorite bonus items is a Bug Bunny cartoon, "Carrotblanca," that features the whole stable of WB animated characters in a sidesplitting send-up of the movie. Additionally, you'll find from 1943 a Screen Guild Theater Radio Show production of "Casablanca" featuring Bogart, Bergman, and Henreid in their original roles; from 1956 an eighteen-minute television adaptation, "Who Holds Tomorrow?," based on the movie; a series of scoring stage sessions of music from the picture; and a fascinating collection of production research notes, memos, photos, schedules, and documents pertaining to the filmmaking. The whole set is a "Casablanca" lover's dream.
As Bacall says, "The lure of 'Casablanca' lies in its romance, intrigue, and mystery." But mostly, I think, its appeal is in its romance; not only the love story, but the romance of adventure, exotic places, colorful characters, and clever repartee. "Casablanca" is a movie for the ages, and its newest digital remastering should keep it that way for a long, long time.